The question matters. The prophet Micah chides Israel for her penchant for reducing true religion in chapter six of his book to religious offerings of all kinds (vv. 6-7).
He then reminds them in v. 8 of God’s three-fold formula:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
My post concerns only the first component – to do justice. What does that look like? The Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament some 418 times with various nuances of meaning, mostly pertaining to courts of law with a forensic sense.
It can, however, have a different flavor. For example, Psalm 106:3 reads, Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times. The synonymous parallelism in the Hebrew suggests equality between doing justice and doing the right thing.
Similarly, Job 29:14 says, I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. Observe, again, the close relationship between righteousness and justice.
Isaiah 1:17 couches justice within a varied range of right behavior which further reinforces this nuance of justice as doing right by others.
Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Matthew Henry commented on this first requirement of true religion:
We must do justly, must render to all their due, according as our relation and obligation to them are; we must do wrong to none, but do right to all, in their bodies, goods, and good name.
Bible scholar S. Lewis Johnson offered this in a message on Micah 6:6-8 –
What is meant is simply the upholding of that which is right or what is accordance with his word in law and in life. In other words, commitment to the Lord God, both as it pertains to the Lord and as it pertains to fellow Israelites. Do you know how Luther translated this? Luther had a happy way of getting right to the point of things, and he often manifested it in some of the ways in which he translated the Bible. He says, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good and what doth the Lord require of thee. But to keep God’s word.” That doesn’t seem to be too good a translation if you know Hebrew. Actually, God’s word is not there and keep’s not there. But he says, “To do justly,” what is to do justly? Well, to do justly is really to keep God’s word. That’s the way he rendered it, to keep God’s word.
So when Tim Keller in our Gospel in Life study during the 9:30 hour chooses to use the term justice to talk about what it means to do right by way of showing mercy towards the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed et al, it seems to me he has hit the mark in interpreting texts like Micah 6:8 and Luke 10:25-37 and James 1:26-27.
Does Keller use provocative language to get our attention in the way he addresses the need for evidence of true religion in terms of ministries of mercy on our part that flow from true gospel life within? Absolutely!
Perhaps this is precisely what we need to blast us out of our spiritual complacency and propel us out into a needy world with compassionate deeds of mercy that meet urgent needs lest we prove unfruitful (Titus 3:14).